Complaints against two churches were brought before the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) for land issues yesterday, with one witness claiming wrongdoing in a land deal by a pastor.
The Fitzburg Church of Christ in Region One, and the Faith Community Ministries in Region Three were the subjects of the testimonies presented by two witnesses, who appeared at a public hearing hosted by the CoI at the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission (GL&SC) headquarters.
The inquiry first heard from Harvey Benjamin, from Fitzburg, Port Kaituma in Region One, who said that he had bought a house near the Church of Christ in 2012 and the pastor then had assured him that he could “live there forever.”
Benjamin had purchased the house, minus the land, for $90,000. There was no sales agreement, just a receipt.
He related that he had moved there with his family after he joined the church and was encouraged to purchase the house. However, when the new pastor came, he was asked to vacate the property, and subsequently, his house was torn down following a court order.
He would later testify that his lawyer told him that the court order was fraudulent. Benjamin had not attended the hearing and he said that he was unaware of what to do.
“…This pastor just keep molesting me…Telling me that he bringing the police on me, the police coming to tell me move off the land. The pastor come and throw down meh drum of water, kick it down in meh yard…,” Benjamin told the commission.
“…He did a lot of things up there. He put off a lot of Amerindians off the land, just like wah he do me with the documents. People don’t know where to go with the documents, when you do give the documents to them, they tek it and break the house down, that’s what he do me now,” he continued.
“This pastor now wah doing this work… the lands them he teking from people and selling them to other people, making false documents and selling the receipt to people, giving people the receipt to sell the lands,” he said further.
He related that persons do not want to come forward to speak out on the injustice.
“There is a lease and your claim is that there was a house on this portion of land and you were given the option to purchase that house, which you did. And you were assured by the then pastor that you will not be asked to remove from the house. But you have nothing in writing, you don’t have a contractual agreement with the former pastor, you don’t even know whether that pastor had the authority to actually give you that kind of permission,” Commissioner Carol Khan-James pointed out.
“Well that’s wah he tell me, to live there forever,” Benjamin stated.
Khan-James acknowledged that his Christian upbringing and relationship with the church would have influenced his belief in his pastor, who had made him the promise. She noted, however, that it was the house and not the land that was sold to him, and related that it then remained his responsibility to place the house where he would be comfortable.
Asked if he had at any time considered approaching the GL&SC to acquire lands somewhere else, Benjamin related an encounter that left Khan-James expressing worry at its implications.
“When they tell me to move I go to lands and mines at Mabaruma by a man by the name of Chapman. So I go to him and I say…I come to apply for land because the church people want me to move off their land. So the lands and mines man turn and tell me now that I must go and tek a land behind the school so I asked he, I say, ‘Well, if I have to take land from behind the school, I need the documents…but he didn’t give me no documents, and he told me that I could go build a house, move me house, and put it pon the land and I mustn’t plant it permanent because when the government ready for the land me goh break again,” Benjamin told the tribunal.
“Did he tell you that?” Khan-James questioned, going on to remind the witness that he was under oath.
“…Are you quite certain that the officer from the Lands and Surveys Com-mission said to you to go and take a piece of land from behind the school without even advising you of the procedures that you would have to follow to obtain a piece of land?” she asked.
Benjamin repeated his earlier account of the exchange.
Asked if he was aware that the Church of Christ of Fitzburg has a lease for the land, he stated that he was told so but was never shown one.
However, it would later be pointed out by attorney Sherwin Benjamin, who led the proceedings yesterday in place of commission counsel Darren Wade, that at the time the house was sold to him, the land was not yet being leased by the church.
As a result, he suggested that the witness consider applying for another plot of land, possibly in the same location, which was also earlier suggested by Commissioner Khan-James.
However, Benjamin was adamant that he had no interest in acquiring lands elsewhere, saying that the area in question is where his children grew up, and it is there that he is desirous of returning to.
Unknowingly signed over
Meanwhile, another witness, Komal Bridgewater, of Parika, told the commission that he had unknowingly signed over half of his land, located at Lookout, to the Pastor of the Faith Community Ministries, after the document prepared by the pastor made claim to more land than he had promised the church.
Bridgewater told the commission that his father had bought him six acres of land, and when he joined the church, he donated one acre to use to build a campsite. He noted that this agreement was made around 2014, and said that there are persons within the church who are aware of the terms.
The agreement, however, was never in writing, and later on, the Pastor would draft an agreement which Bridgewater would sign, claiming for the “undivided half.”
Bridgewater noted that he had seen “undivided half” stated on the document, but “did not take it seriously,” believing that any issues would be settled after the survey.
He would later be made to understand, however, that he had signed over half of his lands to the church.
Bridgewater, who is a farmer, said that he is currently cultivating cabbage on 4 ½ acres of the land, while the church has fenced about 1 ½ acres.
Bridgewater told the commission that he went to the GL&SC but was told that they could do nothing, and he was advised to seek the services of a lawyer. He did so, but when the lawyer wrote seeking information, they were reportedly told that such could not be released to the public.
He said that the lease has not yet been issued and that he was told a survey needs to be done before such can happen and he has not yet received a call.
Bridgewater was advised by Khan-James to write to the GL&SC and communicate to them that the lease was passed on the basis that he was unaware of what he was really signing over. The commissioner had explained to Bridgewater that an undivided share means that the individual can take up location anywhere on the land.
The CoI’s mandate is to examine and make recommendations to resolve all the issues and uncertainties surrounding the individual joint or communal ownership of land acquired by freed African and other matters relative to land titling.
It is being chaired by Reverend George Chuck-a-Sang, with Khan-James, David James, Professor Rudolph James, Lennox Caleb, Berlinda Persaud, and Paulette Henry serving as commissioners.
The CoI’s public hearings are expected to conclude today.